Very quietly Ron Francis was one of the best centers in the history of the National Hockey League history. He finished his career with 549 goals, 1249 assists (2nd best of all time) and 1798 points (4th best). He won two Stanley Cups, three Lady Byng trophies, a Selke trophy and a Clancy trophy.
Yet somehow he was always hockey's best kept secret. He was never named to an All Star team, never played for Team Canada, and never mentioned in the same breathe as the game's top centers of his era such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Mark Messier or Joe Sakic.
Picked fourth overall by Hartford in the 1981 Entry Draft, Ron excelled for years in relative obscurity with the Hartford Whalers. For almost a decade Francis was the Hartford Whalers. He was their leading offensive threat while also being their top checker. He was their specialty teams specialist, face-off specialist and most importantly he was their leader.
Francis, like Gretzky, thought the game better than most. He somehow exceeded the sum of his parts. He was a choppy skater, deceptively quick but not pretty to watch. He had good size and used it effective, but was anything but imposing. He was never a dazzling or charismatic player, just a greatly efficient one.
Francis, a cousin of Whalers goalie Mike Liut, played 10 seasons in Hartford, receiving the team's MVP honors four times and leading the team in scoring five times and in assists seven times. He is the Whalers all-time NHL leader in goals (264), assists (557), points (821) and games played (714).
Even though the Whalers never found much playoff success and relations were crumbling, it was still a surprise when later in his career Francis was traded in a blockbuster deal to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Negotiations over a new contract were at a stalemate, and relations between the franchise and its key player were fragmenting. The Whalers even went as low as to strip Francis, universally hailed as one of the greatest leaders in the game, of the team captaincy.
Ron immediately had an impact in Pittsburgh. Francis played a huge part in helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, in 1991 and 1992. While continuing to be a top defensive center man, Ron enjoyed his finest scoring season in Pittsburgh. In 1995-96 he was often moved on to left wing with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Francis would score 27 goals and lead the league with 92 assists for 119 points.
Francis became the glue of a very talented Pittsburgh Penguins team. Playing in the huge shadows of scoring sensations Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, it was Francis' defensive contributions and quiet offensive genius that was the missing ingredient in Pittsburgh. The Pens' two Stanley Cup victories were largely, but typically quietly, due to Ron Francis.
In 1998-99 Ron Francis returned to his roots, sort of. He rejoined the Whalers franchise, long since moved to Carolina where it was known as the Hurricanes. He was a big part of the growth of the NHL in a hockey-sparse locale. His best season came in 2002 when he scored 77 points and led the surprising WhalerCanes to the Eastern Conference championships.
After a brief stop in Toronto, Francis announced his retirement in the summer of 2005. He expanded his WhalerCanes franchise marks to 16 seasons, 1,186 games, 382 goals, 793 assists and 1,185 points. His career marks were 549 goals, 1249 assists (2nd best of all time) and 1798 points (4th best of all time).